Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Clean, affordable light rail: economic boost

A great article from last week in the Toronto Star outlines the economic benefits of light rail transit, which Toronto Mayor David Miller is fighting to establish within the city through the Transit City plan. The British also understand the economic benefits of transit expansion, as London's mayor is involved in a similar situation. However the author of the piece, Greg Gormick, is completely wrong when he states that "the various parties involved in Transit City have done a deplorable job explaining LRT to the plan's opponents". Mayor Miller and TTC Chair Adam Giambrone have been pushing for this very hard, constantly explaining the advantages of light rail and its economic benefits. I believe the problem is that Toronto's media are out to practically crucify Miller and Giambrone, as our media outlets largely favour the centrist Liberals and right-wing Conservatives, and loathe the fact that a left-wing mayor has done a remarkable job. They're also likely bored with Miller and want someone new to entertain them, even if that means rooting for a right-wing imbecile who would want to privatize everything and send city costs spiralling out of control. The American media made the same decision in the 2000 presidential election with Al Gore, that he was too boring and not exciting and fun like George Bush, so the media favoured Bush while wrote poorly about Gore, who received negative coverage. Anyways:

In the ideal world, an informed public debate over the TTC's $10 billion Transit City light rail transit (LRT) plan would hone it into a scheme fully responsive to the needs of transit users and residents who live along the line.

Instead, Transit City is being lambasted by a cadre of critics who hope to derail it, but without really knowing anything about LRT.

To be fair, the various parties involved in Transit City have done a deplorable job explaining LRT to the plan's opponents.

As a result, the average Torontonian has no idea of social, environmental and economic benefits of this cost-effective form of rail transit.

In the Toronto context, the first thing that needs to be understood is that LRT and streetcars are not the same beasts. They are related, but there are massive differences between these two approaches to urban transportation.

LRT is a postwar European development that grew out of the conventional streetcar. As Western Europe got back on its feet after World War II, rising car ownership gradually chewed into transit ridership. Some cities followed the North American example and abandoned their streetcars. But many others embarked on evolutionary programs to build on the streetcar's strength as an intermediate-capacity technology filling the gap between high-capacity subways and lower-capacity buses.

The result was a series of technological and operational advances that included:

• Larger and faster rolling stock with higher capacity and labour productivity.
• Better track to provide a smoother and quieter ride.
• Wider spacing of stations or car stops, leading to reduced travel times.
• Innovative fare collection systems for faster passenger loading and unloading.
• Pre-emptive, transit-priority signalling at intersections.
• Separated rights-of-way to minimize conflicts with automobiles.
• But European LRT also involved much more than just tracks and rolling stock.

There, urban planners embraced the concept of transit-oriented land-use development, using fast, frequent and convenient rail transit services as a means of controlling outer suburban development and making the inner cities more accessible, vibrant and appealing.

European cities also used LRT as an opportunity to totally re-engineer and improve their streets for all users under a concept known as lateral segregation. Each user — transit rider, motorist, cyclist and pedestrian — is assigned a portion of a street and each is segregated from the other in order to accommodate their varying requirements. Every element of the street is re-engineered accordingly: traffic lanes, parking, taxi stands, traffic management systems, cycling lanes, sidewalks, street lighting and all aspects of the “street furniture.”

The total effect is one of calming the street while also invigorating it economically and socially. LRT now plays a major role in both large and medium-sized European cities. More than 30 cities that abandoned their streetcars — including Paris, London and Barcelona — have built new LRT lines since the late 1970s and others are hopping aboard.

The success of European LRT was not lost on planners and politicians in some North American cities that abandoned their traditional streetcar systems and paid the price for it in traffic gridlock, unacceptable levels of air pollution and rampant suburban sprawl. In 1978, Edmonton inaugurated North America's first all-new LRT with service-proven German equipment and designs. The LRT concept has spread to 22 other North American cities and more than 30 additional systems are now under construction or in planning.

When properly implemented — as it has been in cities as diverse as Dallas, San Diego and Portland, Ore., — LRT has delivered exactly what its advocates predicted. It has sparked a transit revival, luring commuters out of their cars and reducing emissions. It has acted as an economic catalyst, encouraging compact, transit-oriented development. And it has revived deteriorated residential and commercial neighbourhoods, generating considerable on-street activity and boosting property values.

To believe that the opposite will be the result with LRT on streets such as Sheppard, Eglinton and Finch flies in the face of worldwide experience. These main thoroughfares are probably better suited to LRT than many of those in U.S. cities, where it has proved its value as a fast, clean and affordable form of transit that boosts livability.

Some Torontonians maintain that we should be building subways instead of LRT. But subways cost about four times as much per kilometre and they are financially sustainable only where there are huge volumes of passengers ready to ride them on opening day. That is not the case in Toronto on the lines proposed for LRT.

Change is always frightening. But to allow an uninformed fear of the city-changing benefits of LRT to kill Transit City would doom Toronto to more car dependency, congestion, pollution and economic stagnation.

Other cities with which we compete for residents, jobs and investment are embracing LRT as one means to improve their social, environmental and economic attractiveness. Can we afford not to? I think not.

Greg Gormick is the Canadian contributing editor of the rail and transit trade magazine Railway Age. He wrote the TTC's 2004 consulting report, The Streetcar Renaissance: Its Background and Benefits

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